Football

Ramos ignites feud with Pique over tweet

Tension mounts between Spain's defensive pair over Catalonia independence referendum

A crisis is threatening to break out in the Spanish camp, just days before their remaining World Cup qualifiers.

Spain captain Sergio Ramos yesterday criticised his centre-back partner Gerard Pique, who had tweeted in support of Catalonia's controversial referendum on independence.

Ramos, 31, fears that this could spark divisions in the Spanish team as they look to secure an automatic spot for next year's World Cup.

Pique, who is regularly booed by large sections of Spain supporters for his outspoken comments against Real Madrid and his perceived support of Catalan independence, tweeted in favour of Sunday's referendum last Thursday - without backing a split for Spain.

However, the 30-year-old urged supporters to behave well.

The Spanish government deems the referendum, which took place on Sunday, to be illegal and had tried to prevent it from taking place, as tension builds in the country.

Despite being leading figures for arch-rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively, the Pique-Ramos partnership has largely served Spain well.

But the tweet could cause their relationship to fall apart.

"Pique's tweet was not the best thing to do if he doesn't want to be booed," Ramos said.

"Perhaps the tweet is not the best thing for the group. Everyone is free to say what they think, although as a captain, I'm always concerned about the atmosphere in the team and Pique knew what he was doing.

"Maybe it wasn't the right time to do that and it doesn't help a lot."

Ramos was not the only Spaniard riled by the tweet.

Pique, who voted in the referendum and has criticised police violence against voters which caused hundreds of injuries, was targeted by angry Spain fans yesterday morning (Singapore time) during training with the national team.

Spain supporters at the Las Rozas training facility in Madrid jeered, whistled and chanted at Pique to leave the team, brandishing banners carrying insults aimed at him.

Spanish media reported that police confiscated some of the banners, including one which described Pique as "sickening".

However, Spain coach Julen Lopetegui has spoken out in support of Pique.

"The behaviour of Gerard has been exceptional," coach Julen Lopetegui told Spanish radio station Cadena Cope.

"I wanted to see how he was and I saw he was motivated and enthusiastic. He's well and fired up, if it were not like that, he wouldn't be with me."

Lopetegui also defended the decision to hold the training session in public, adding: "It would have been an error to train behind closed doors. The fans have the right to express themselves. I know the situation is unpleasant, but I ask people for a little reason and sanity."

Pique said on Sunday he would leave the national team if asked to by Lopetegui or the Spanish FA.

Group G leaders Spain, three points clear of second-placed Italy, are aiming to seal an automatic spot for next year's World Cup.

To do so, they need four points from their games against Albania (Saturday morning, Singapore time) and Israel (next Tuesday).

Pique had announced that he will retire from international duty after the World Cup, having grown tired of criticism by Spain supporters. - WIRE SERVICES

REAL MADRIDbarcelonaSergio Ramos